One of the fun things I’m doing with “A Place Called Hope” is bouncing around a bit in the timeline. Most of the action occurs less than a week after the end of “A Place Outside The Wild”, but a smaller chunk is set just a few months after the outbreak and focuses on a new character, Alexandros Scopulis. His arc is critical to the story going forward. When, and how, he and any survivors he teams up with encounter the rest of crew – would be telling far, far too much.
But for a sample, read on.
April 3, 2018
Z-Day + 168
Sandy crested the slight rise before the river and fell to a stunned halt.
US Highway 54 wound through a remarkably unpopulated swathe of Illinois before it eventually ran into the Mississippi. A faded green sign on the side of the road boasted ‘Champ Clark Bridge’, but the crossing was as intact as civilization itself just shy of five months after the outbreak.
The green-painted members of the old-style suspension bridge ended far short of the opposite side of the river. The steel was twisted and blackened at the ends. Bereft of support, the bridge deck sagged down out of view toward the surface of the water.
He’d spent most of the winter holed up in his office, living off of toilet tank water and vending machine food. Those supplies had lasted longer than the power, but he’d eventually been forced to strike out on his own. Doctor Alexandros ‘Sandy’ Scopulis had spent most of his working career in a research library, but he tended toward the hyperactive and had been an avid cyclist before the outbreak. In the weeks since he’d left the safety of his lab he’d found that he was an inadequate fighter at best, but he was more than good enough at running.
He grumbled a curse and adjusted the straps of his backpack. He’d snaked a meandering path across southern Indiana and Illinois, avoiding population centers as much as possible. More often than not, every bridge he’d come to was in much the same shape as this one. While he’d been holed up and cowering, the US Air Force had conducted a scorched Earth campaign in an attempt to stem the outbreak.
The joke was on them in the end, though. The outbreak had been too widespread and distributed to quarantine. The bombings hadn’t stopped the infection, but they’d cut off routes of retreat and left the Army and National Guard open to defeat in detail.
There were no defensive fortifications on this side of the bridge, and the opposite bank was out of view. Sandy guessed it would look much the same as every other river crossing he’d come across. Hastily-thrown up barricades pushed aside by an inexorable mass of infected, fallen weapons, and abandoned vehicles.
The pistol at his belt had come from one such site. He’d cleaned and oiled it as best as he could, but it still felt overlarge and awkward in his hands. It was loud and he was an inaccurate shot, which made it a weapon of last resort. More often than not his first choice was a dented Easton softball bat. He’d tied a length of twine to the handle and barrel, and wore it slung over one shoulder next to his backpack.
Sandy sighed and cursed under his breath. There was next to nothing on this side of the river — one of the reasons he’d chosen the route to begin with — but it was also starting to get dark. In the daylight, he could move around quietly enough and avoid wandering infected before they spotted him, but the night was a different story. He didn’t know what changes had been wrought in their optic structure, but they weren’t nearly as incapable in the darkness as a typical human. For those reasons he holed up in the evenings as often as he could.
He glanced around. A paved road led to the north off of the main highway. A sign sat at a drunken angle on one side of the drive, blown over in the months since the outbreak. His only other option was to turn around and go back, and the last building he’d spotted had been a burnt-out wreck. In a pinch, he could camp out on the roof, but he’d rather find a more secure alternative.
Sandy slipped the Easton off of his shoulder and stepped toward the driveway. As he got closer he leaned over, and made out faded painted letters that read ‘Two Rivers Marina.’
He followed the curve of the driveway through a few trees, and came out into a parking lot. It almost overflowed with vehicles. Each looked as though it had been liberally streaked with dust, though clean patches here and there boasted where snow melt had cut through the grime. Tomorrow morning, perhaps, the vehicles offered a possibility of supplies. For now, the gravid mass of the sun on the horizon across the river lent an urgency to his movements.
The main building had a glass front — for a better view of the river, he guessed. That also made it unfit for any sort of overnight shelter. Sandy licked his lips and looked over his shoulder. It was silent, but he still had a crawling sensation between his shoulder blades. The maze of cars cut off too much of his view of the parking lot for his taste, and he hurried to one edge. He scanned the docks and slips, but they were all as empty and abandoned as the rest of this part of the countryside. When Hell had come upon the world, the uninfected had gone down to the river.
He spun in place twice before he noticed the RV parked at the edge of the parking lot farthest from the river. Like the rest of the cars, it had a zebra-pattern of dusty and clean stripes, but the sides of the vehicle were also marked here and there with glinting spots of metal. He frowned as he drew closer.
Sandy stiffened as he recognized the scattering of bullet holes across the RV’s side. Had the vehicle come later, perhaps? Whatever the case, it had suffered far more than the other cars here. And yet, despite that suffering, the windows remained intact. He didn’t typically like to shelter in cars, but this vehicle stood tall. If he kept low and out of sight, it was very possible that any infected in the area might pass on without becoming aware of his presence.
He leaned over and scanned the pavement beneath the vehicle. It was high enough off the ground to make for an ideal hiding place. To fall victim to an ankle-biter after making it this far would be embarrassing, frankly.
The area was clear and he moved down the side of the RV. Sure enough, the shiny spots were bullet holes. He fingered them thoughtfully, then turned to study the parking lot. There was no shortage of debris, but he didn’t see any shell casings. The shooting must have occurred elsewhere, and the driver parked here before stopping.
With a frown, Sandy wiped a corner of a side window clear and tried to peer inside. The drapes were drawn, and the narrow angle of the interior that he could make out was cloaked in shadow.
He reached the side door and tried the knob. It was unlocked, but the door gave only slightly. Sandy frowned.
He eased his background to the ground and scanned the area around him. He was still alone, but the sun would be down soon. If he was going to use the RV for shelter, he needed to access it quickly, or he needed to move on.
He pulled the door open as far as he could and studied the frame. Something rectangular blocked an area just above the door knob. After a moment of study he deduced that it was some sort of drop bar. He hadn’t spent much time in RVs, but he felt fairly confident that such a thing wasn’t a standard feature. Something the driver had added after the outbreak?
After a moment of consideration, he stepped over to one of the nearby sedans and unscrewed the antenna aerial. Back at the RV, he braced the center of the aerial against his knee and bent it into a rough approximation of a ninety-degree angle.
He slipped the top loop of twine off of the softball bat and tied it to the base end of the antenna. The tip was just small enough to fit into the door frame below the drop bar, and he pushed it in as far as it would go, flush with the bend. Sandy eased up on the string and hoped the metal would be strong enough.
His luck held. There was a bit of resistance, but the drop bar lifted out of the bracket on his side. The bar still sat in the brackets on the far end, but the slack let the door come open enough for him to reach inside and pull it off the inner brackets and drop it to the floor.
The door came open with a rush of musty air. He grimaced, but didn’t waste time considering the smell. He took up the Easton and moved back, waiting for any occupants of the RV to step out into the light.
The interior was still and silent. He gave it a minute that felt closer to an eternity, then decided the coast was clear. Sandy scooped up his backpack and scrambled into the RV. With the door closed behind him and the drop bar back in place, he felt as secure as he had since he’d left the lab.
Between the drapes on the side windows and the scum covering the windshield, he could barely make out his hand in front of his face. Since the outbreak, the only thing he collected more obsessively than food and water were flashlights. He had no less than a half-dozen stashed away in pockets or in his backpack. Sandy drew one out, clicked it on, and froze.
The area of the RV just off of the side access door was set up as a small kitchenette. Cabinets, a sink, and cooking utensils were arrayed against the wall nearest the door. The opposite wall supported a folding table, benches, and a body.
The interior of the RV was secure enough that the vermin hadn’t gotten to the corpse, but it had been inside long enough to rot and dry out.
The body had been there long enough to make any guess as to age and gender impossible, though from the jeans, plaid shirt, and hiking boots, Sandy guessed that it had been a man. The bone-white crew cut just confirmed that, guess, though for some reason he didn’t get the sense he’d been as old as the hair might otherwise indicate.
Faded brown streaks cascaded down the legs of the corpse’s jeans and joined a broad circle on the carpet beneath where he sat. Sandy winced, and panned the beam of the flashlight up onto his face. The skin had drawn in, highlighting the shape of his skull. The jaw hung open, and as shadow played over white teeth, he imagined the cheery greeting he might once have been offered.
“Thanks for the hospitality, friend,” Sandy murmured. “Just need a place to crash for the night.”
No worries, bro! Mi casa es su casa! The skull grinned in the dim light.
He wasn’t really talking, of course — Sandy wasn’t that far around the bend. His more clinical side noted that it was a coping mechanism. He hadn’t seen an uninfected person in over a month, and even that guy had been too skittish to do more than flinch and run away.
He was walking through a countryside populated with living dead that wanted to feast on his flesh. Imaginary conversations with inanimate objects seemed eminently reasonable. At least he wasn’t so far gone as to paint a face on a volleyball.
Sandy unzipped the top of his backpack and drew out a battered camp lantern. He didn’t use it much — it was too bright, and depended on a loud wind-up mechanism rather than replaceable batteries. The interior of the RV was perfect for it, though. He cranked for a bit and set it on the table in front of his new friend.
With the additional light he was able to make out the stained bullet holes on the lower hem of the body’s plaid shirt. “They got you good, huh, bud? Buddy,” he added, with a crooked grin.
That’s what I get for skipping that toll booth, huh?
“You’re a smart ass, Buddy,” Sandy observed. He panned the flashlight around the interior and found a vent window in the ceiling. He reached up and popped it open. Without any electricity to drive any fans it would take a while to air the place out, but it would be better than nothing. “And no offense, but you smell.”
Guessing it’s been a while since your last shower, too, chief.
“You’ve got me there.” Sandy stepped over to the cabinets and opened it up. “Jackpot.” Neat rows of canned goods filled the cabinet, and as he went through the others, he found a a variety that was quite literally more than he would be able to carry.
“Appreciate it.” Sandy started pulling cans down and checking the labels as he went. He’d prioritize the protein-heavy stuff like chili and corned beef hash and leave most of the vegetables. Canned fruit was a nice treat, though, so he made a third stack on the counter.
He sat down across from Buddy with a can of pineapple rings and opened up a creased road atlas. He found the US 54 crossing and grunted thoughtfully as he pulled the tab on the can of fruit. “You never realize how big this country is until you have to walk across it,” he observed, and took a swig of pineapple juice. It was lukewarm, but it was still the best thing he’d tasted in days. He wiped his lips with the back of his hand and sighed. “I had a bike, but I had to ditch it. Easier on foot. I’ve been avoiding the major population centers, but there are plenty of roamers out and about.” Sandy drew a line with his finger. “My plan was, stay away from the big cities, make it to the Great Plains, and head north. Montana or Wyoming maybe.”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “But the further north you go, the lower the population density. Less infected. I hope. And they aren’t as frisky in the winter.” He hooked a piece of pineapple out of the can and into his mouth. “Where were you headed, Buddy?
You know, I can’t quite remember.
Sandy rolled his eyes. “I’m betting you were thinking something the same. But you got shot, and you by the time you got here, the bridge was out.”
Buddy just grinned. The lantern was starting to dim, so Sandy picked it up and cranked on it for a bit. As he did, he glanced at the bench seat next to the corpse.
“You’re packing some heat, friend.”
He put the lantern back and grabbed the shotgun off of the bench. He wasn’t much of a gun guy, but he’d seen his fair share of movies. The weapon didn’t have a shoulder stock, just a pistol grip. He fiddled with the pump-action, frowning when it refused to move. The safety catch was simple enough, but — ah! He found a small tab near the pistol grip. He pressed it, and the slide released. He ejected a fresh shell onto the table. Careful to keep his finger off of the trigger, he flipped the shotgun over and found the slot where fresh shells went and loaded it back in.
Be careful with that, bro.
“I will,” Sandy promised. “You got any other goodies stashed away?”
Buddy just grinned.